The Theme of Madness in Shakespeare's Hamlet

Updated on July 5, 2018
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L. Sarhan has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing and plans for an M.A. in English with a concentration in literature and theory.

To Be Mad or Not to Be Mad, that is the Question!

Before analyzing whether certain characters in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” were mad or not, one must look at not only the behaviors that appear to be mad but the source of the madness. When Hamlet was having a conversation with the gravedigger who didn’t recognize him, the gravedigger spoke of how Hamlet was sent to England because he went mad. Hamlet then asks, “How came he mad?” (5.1.134) Hamlet makes a point to see if people merely saw the madness or the source of why he seemed mad. Grief and madness in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and the difference between how Hamlet and Ophelia handled their grief shows how determining whether the cause of madness is temporary or permanent.

Hamlet’s grief first manifests as a solemn mourner as life seems pointless. Adhering to his Christian faith, he knows that taking his own life would be against God’s law and laments out to God his agony over the loss of his father. “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God, God! / How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” (1.2.131-133) Even in Hamlet’s infamous speech in Act III, he questions the point of life and death as he begins, “To be, or not to be? That is the question— / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And, by opposing, end them?” (3.57-61)

Was Hamlet truly mad?

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According to Virginia Hughes (2011) in the article, “Shades of Grief: When Does Mourning Become a Mental Illness?” published by Scientific America, she explains that it is common for mourners to ponder and question their point of existence. In addition to Hamlet’s sorrowful mourning over the loss of his father, he questions the motives of the marriage of his mother to his uncle, Claudius, within a month of his father’s death. He wonders if foul play was involved in the death of his father as he says, “O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason / Would have mourned longer!—married with my uncle, […] She married. / O most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! /It is not nor it cannot come to good, / But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” (1.2.150-151, 157-160). His suspicions were first clarified when he was invited by Horatio to come to see his father’s ghost. In doing so, Hamlet’s father reveals that he was indeed murdered by Hamlet’s uncle and orders Hamlet to seek revenge (1.5.25, 62). Hamlet, blinded by the rage of the betrayal of his uncle, begins his descent into the assumed madness of mourning, betrayal, and revenge. The poisoning of Hamlet’s father is later confirmed as Hamlet overhears his uncle admitting to murdering Hamlet’s father (3.3.37-39).

But, was Hamlet really afflicted with temporary madness? There are passages within the play that suggest that was not truly mad, but instead, it was merely for show as a ruse to exact his revenge. In Act I, Scene V, Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus, “How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself / (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on), / That you, at such times seeing me, never shall – “ (1.5.171-174) This is shortly after Hamlet learned of his uncle’s betrayal from his father’s ghost. Hamlet essentially explains to his friends that from hence forth his behaviors may seem erratic as though he has lost his mind but he assures them that he has not and it is only to obfuscate people so that he can carry out his father’s wishes. Hamlet also makes them swear to secrecy not to tell anyone otherwise.

Beside from Hamlet’s erratic behaviors, such as manipulating the players to reenact his uncle’s heinous act of betrayal, it was what happens after the play that make his mother believe that he has gone truly mad. Visiting with his mother after the play in Act III, Scene IV, he assumes the man behind the curtain is his uncle the king, thus he stabs him with his sword. Soon after, Hamlet discovers it was Ophelia’s father, Polonius (3.4.25-32). It was not until Hamlet, startled by his father’s ghost, to which Gertrude could not see for herself, that she utters her greatest fear, “Alas, he’s mad!” (3.4.107) Besides Hamlet’s show of erratic behavior and assumed madness, what his mother did not know was that he was able to reason in a logical mindset throughout the play and was merely carrying out his dead father’s wishes to be avenged.

Was Ophelia truly mad?

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On the other hand, Ophelia’s descent into madness has been a topic of debate for many Shakespearean scholars. Was it the death of her father or the fact that Hamlet, the man she loved, rejected her affections? It is possible that it could be a combination of both. Perhaps it was the death of her father shortly after suffering from a broken heart that sent her over the edge into madness. Regardless, Ophelia presents with the classic symptoms of hysterica passio, which is a type of panic attack with exaggerated and uncontrollable emotion in association with selective amnesia, shallow volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior. (Camden 254). Because she suffered from a type of hysteria and not simply an act, she is the one that truly suffered from madness.

Ophelia thought that Hamlet’s source of madness was that he truly loved her and when she rejected his letters of affection due to her brother’s warning (1.3.5-9) and her father forbidding her to continue her affections toward Hamlet (1.3.115-135), she assumed he was mad from a broken heart. However, in Act III, Scene I, Hamlet says to Ophelia, “I did love you once… You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.” (3.1.17, 19-21) Ophelia may have been distraught and heartbroken over the complicated and misunderstood unraveling of romance, but it is unclear whether this initially causes her madness. Some scholars believe the type hysteria Ophelia suffered from was originally brought on by a case of erotomania as Ophelia may have wondered if she was delusional about Hamlet, someone of a higher status, actually loving her to begin with or at all (Camden 254). It was the death of her father, whom she loved the most in the world that was the catalyst in her undoing. During her grief and madness, she laments in song the tragedy of the lost love of Hamlet in the first four lines of her song:

How should I your true love know

  From another one?

By his cockle hat and staff,

  And his sandal shoon.

— "Hamlet" by Shakespeare (4.5.22-25)

In these lines, Ophelia speaks of her broken heart as she feels deceived by Hamlet’s intentions of marriage and romance only to reject her later. Camden (251) suggests that in addition to Ophelia dealing with her father’s death she is still emotionally dealing with Hamlet’s combined rejection of her, killing her fathers, and his banishment to England. She may believe, in the twist of madness, that Hamlet is now dead to her as well. As she continues the song she shifts the focus to the loss of her father.

He is dead and gone, lady,

 He is dead and gone,

At his head a grass-green turf,

 At his heels a stone.

— "Hamlet" by Shakespeare (4.5.28-31)

In this passage, she has now turned her grief and woe to the death of her father. Adding further insult to injury, her madness is heightened in the knowledge that his death was by the hands of the man she loved. It is as though the madness twists and turns the reasoning to these tragic events in her mind. Ophelia may be still grieving over her recent heart-break, but the death of her father and how he died is more pertinent to the cause of her madness.

Interestingly, both Hamlet and Ophelia suffered the same fate as they both die in the end. Their death, however, was the product of two different types of madness – one as an act or performance that results in a regrettable act, such as Hamlet mistakenly killing Ophelia’s father, and Ophelia’s presumed suicide from the despair of the madness she suffered from. As a result of Hamlet’s impulsive act, it is Laertes enacts his revenge during a duel by piercing Hamlet’s skin with a poisoned tip sword, which ultimately cost Hamlet his life. There is much debate, even among the characters, about whether Ophelia willfully killed herself or whether she just allowed the water to drown her in its wake. As the gravedigger tried to explain to the other man questioning whether Ophelia would be having a Christian burial: “Give me leave. Here lies the water. Good. Here stands the man. Good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he nill he, he goes. Mark you that. But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself. Argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.” (5.1.14-19)

The gravedigger’s point is that there is a fine line between going out into the water with the intention to kill herself and not going to the water with the initial thought of ending her life, but instead allowing the water to come to her and not fighting against the drowning effect that the water causes. In other words, is it truly suicide when the means for death came to her instead of she going to it? It can only be assumed that Ophelia had a similar mindset to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” scene except in her mind she was truly mad and chose not “to take arms against a sea of troubles” as Hamlet had the clarity of mind to realize that although life seems pointless in mourning, it is still worth fighting for. Perhaps, Shakespeare used Hamlet’s dialogue and reasoning to foreshadow Ophelia’s fate since she drowned in the sea with a troubled mind? Also, this may have been Shakespeare’s way of subtle distinction clarifying the difference between who was mad and who was not by way of their mental reasoning. Hamlet chose to fight through life’s troubles; Ophelia did not as she allowed life’s trouble to consume her like the waves of the sea.

Hamlet is a tragedy brought out in a domino-effect of madness, revenge, and impulsive behaviors. Was Hamlet then mad for being so fool-hearty to put on such a ruse of insanity that causes later examples of true madness? Impulsively brash and shortsighted, yes, but not mad by the true definition of the word. Ophelia, on the other hand, went down a dark rabbit hole of madness due to Hamlet’s actions; one she could not climb out of. Therefore, when deciding whether one is truly mad or not, the circumstances surrounding their outward appearance of madness must be factored in the consideration, as grief, rage, and despair present itself differently for each character depending upon their viewpoint and experience.

Works Cited

Camden, Carroll. “On Ophelia's Madness.” George Washington University. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Spring, 1964), pp. 247-255. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2867895

Hughes, Virginia. “Shades of Grief: When Does Mourning Become a Mental Illness?” Scientific America. 2011. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/shades-of-grief

Shakespeare, William. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” The Shakespeare Hard Press, Oxford Edition. Woodsworth Library Collection. 2007. Print.

For lecture on understanding Shakespeare's play "Hamlet", visit Professor Ted Sherman's YouTube Channel

Reader Interaction:

  • Do you think Hamlet was mad? Why or why not? What evidence in the play formulates your opinion?
  • Do you think Ophelia was mad? Why or why not? What evidence in the play formulates your opinion?
  • Do you think any other characters displayed a form of madness? What evidence in the play that has led you to think so?

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 L Sarhan

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